George Macartney

Birth: 1737


MACARTNEY, GEORGE, Earl Macartney (1737–1806), diplomatist and colonial governor, born in Ireland on 14 May 1737, was only son of George Macartney of Lissanoure, co. Antrim, who married in 1732 Elizabeth, youngest daughter of the Rev. John Winder, prebendary of Kilrain and vicar of Carmony. At the age of thirteen George matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated M.A. in 1759. He entered as a student at the Middle Temple, but not seeking a call to the bar, he travelled for some time on the continent. He made the acquaintance of Stephen Fox, elder brother of Charles James Fox, and acquired the lasting friendship of the Holland family. On his return from his travels early in 1764, Macartney was considered one of the handsomest and most accomplished young men of his day. Fox's father, Lord Holland [see Fox, Henry, Lord Holland], proposed that Macartney should enter the House of Commons as member for Midhurst. Instead, he was appointed, 22 Aug. 1764, envoy-extraordinary to St. Petersburg, to conclude a commercial treaty with Russia. Before starting he was knighted (19 Oct. 1764). After a long and difficult negotiation he accomplished his task to the satisfaction of both courts, and received the Polish order of the White Eagle. Charles James Fox eulogised his address to the Empress Catherine: ‘I think your speech to the Czarina one of the neatest things of the kind I ever saw; and I can assure you Burke admires it prodigiously.’ Returning to England in June 1767, Macartney declined an offer of the embassy at St. Petersburg, and next year married a daughter of Lord Bute. He was returned to parliament for Cockermouth, but resigned when elected for Antrim in the Irish House of Commons, in view of his becoming chief secretary for Ireland—a post to which he was appointed 1 Jan. 1769, and held until 1772, when he was made K.B. As leader of the ministerial side in the Irish house, he was noted for his good temper and firmness in dealing with the opposition, led by Henry Flood, Dr. Charles Lucas (1713–1771), and others. In 1774 he was made governor of Toome Castle, a sinecure worth 1,000l. a year, which he sold to pay debts contracted during his embassy to Russia.

In 1775 Macartney was appointed captain-general and governor of the Caribbee islands (Grenada, the Grenadines and Tobago), and in 1776 was raised to the Irish peerage as Baron Macartney, of Lissanoure. He was on his post at Grenada in 1779 when that island was attacked, and after a gallant defence was captured by the French (cf. his papers in Brit. Mus. Egerton MS. 2135 ff. 54–72). Macartney was carried as a prisoner of war to France, but was soon exchanged. In 1780 he was sent by Lord North on a confidential mission to Ireland, and sat for a while in the English commons as member for Beeralston, Devonshire. The East India Company having decided in November 1780 that other than company's servants should be eligible for Indian governorships, Macartney was proposed and appointed governor and president of Fort St. George (Madras). He arrived at Madras on 22 June 1781, bringing news of the war with the Dutch, and hearing for the first time that Hyder Ali had invaded and overrun the Carnatic. He seized the Dutch ports of Sudras and Palicut; the Dutch settlements at Negapatam and Trincomalee were captured by the naval squadron under Sir Edward Hughes Macartney followed up the brilliant victory of Sir Eyre Coote (1726–1783), at Porto Novo, 1 July 1781, by overtures to treat with Hyder, who returned a characteristic reply (see Mill, iv. 221), and with the Mahrattas. Macartney treated Coote with deference and courtesy, and appears to have had a sincere regard for him; but Coote was ill and captious, and resented Macartney's policy of subordinating the military to the civil power, which he carried to extremity throughout his tenure of government, and pressed as an essential on the directors after his return home. Coote was supported by Warren Hastings and the Bengal council, whose control Macartney opposed. When Coote's failing health compelled him to return to Bengal, Macartney declined to allow the same latitude to his successor, Major-general James Stuart. On hearing of the death of Hyder—knowing the want of cohesion in eastern armies, and rightly estimating the chances of their dispersion if vigorously attacked at such a time—Macartney urged immediate action; but Stuart was too busy with his own grievances to enter warmly into these views. After Stuart's mismanagement of the expedition for the recapture of Cuddalore, and various acts of disobedience, Macartney caused him to be arrested and sent him home. Macartney drew up a treaty with Hyder's successor, Tippoo Sahib, which was approved by the Bengal council during the absence of Warren Hastings at Lucknow. But Macartney subsequently received a revised text of the treaty, altered so as to include the nabob of Arcot, whose territory was to be restored. Macartney strongly opposed this measure, and, on learning that his views were not upheld at home, sent in his resignation. He visited Calcutta on his way home, in a vain attempt to impress his views on the Bengal government, and was detained there by a long and dangerous illness. Before leaving he received a despatch from the board of control, offering him the post of governor-general in succession to Hastings. He arrived in England in January 1786. Except in regard of the nabob of Arcot, his acts were warmly approved both by the court of directors and by Pitt. Macartney refused the governor-generalship, which ultimately was given to Lord Cornwallis. The East India directors presented him with a piece of plate of the value of 1,600l., for the forbearance and justice of his conduct at Madras, and his ‘great pecuniary moderation.’ Soon after his return home Macartney was addressed by General Stuart in terms that led to a challenge from Macartney. The duel took place in Hyde Park on 8 June 1786, and Macartney was severely wounded (Gent. Mag. 1786, pt. i. p. 523).

Macartney took his seat in the Irish House of Peers in 1788, was made custos rotulorum of Antrim, a trustee of the linen manufacture, a member of the Irish privy council, and a colonel of yeomanry. In 1792 he was created Earl Macartney and Viscount Macartney of Dervock in the peerage of Ireland.

The exactions and acts of injustice perpetrated by the Chinese on English subjects had at this time become so notorious that it was decided to send an embassy to Pekin. Macartney was selected for the post of plenipotentiary. The embassy was equipped with some magnificence, and embarked in the Lion, 64 guns, Captain Erasmus Gower, 26 Sept. 1792. On his arrival Macartney was graciously received. He managed to evade the necessity of doing homage to the emperor in Chinese fashion. Subsequently, at Yuen-Ming-Yuen, he was again admitted to the imperial presence. The embassy collected much information, but permission to have a British minister resident in China was declined. The embassy was sumptuously entertained by the Chinese viceroy at Canton in December 1793, and in September 1794 arrived home from Macao. In 1795 Macartney was sent to Italy on a confidential mission to Louis XVIII of France, then an exile at Verona, with orders to reside near the king. He remained at Verona until Louis XVIII removed to Germany in the following year. Some of his confidential letters at this time have been published in ‘Confidential Letters of the Rt. Hon. Wm. Wickham’ (London, 1870), vol. i. On his return Macartney was created Baron Macartney of Parkhurst, Sussex, and of Auchinleck, Kirkcudbrightshire. On 30 Dec. 1796 he was appointed governor of the newly captured colony of the Cape of Good Hope, which he resigned on account of ill-health in November 1798. On the same ground he declined the presidency of the board of control subsequently offered him by the Addington cabinet. Macartney, who had been several years a martyr to the gout, died at Chiswick, 31 May 1806, aged 69.

Macartney married, 1 Feb. 1768, the Lady Jane Stuart, second daughter of John Stuart, third earl of Bute, K. G. She died in 1828, aged 86. He bequeathed the whole of his property after the death of his widow to his niece Elizabeth Hume, and to her children. Her eldest son assumed the name of Hume-Macartney.

In person Macartney was of middle height, with a placid face and distinguished and agreeable manners. A portrait of him, in conference with his secretary, Sir George Leonard Staunton, painted by Lemuel F. Abbott, is in the National Portrait Gallery. Few public servants have left office with purer hands than Macartney. He had scholarly tastes, and possessed a fine library, which with his manuscripts was sold in 1854 (see Gent. Mag. 1854, i. 283). Many important manuscripts are now in the British Museum, including much correspondence, both public and private, while he was in India. Other Indian letters are noted in ‘Hist. MSS. Comm.’ 9th Rep. pt. ii. pp. 330–340. Macartney was author of ‘An Account of an Embassy to Russia’ (printed for private circulation in 1768), ‘A Political Account of Ireland’ (1773), and ‘Journal of the Embassy to China,’ all of which are published in the second volume of Barrow's ‘Memoir.’ A cenotaph was erected to him in Lissanoure Church, with an epitaph by George Henry Glasse, which is given in the ‘Gent. Mag.’ 1806, pt. i. p. 475.

[Burke's Extinct Peerage, under ‘Macartney;’; Sir John Barrow's Some Account of the Public Life of Earl Macartney, London, 1807, 2 vols.; Gent. Mag. 1806, pt. i. pp. 387, 475, 556; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. viii. 211; Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd, 5th, and 9th Reports, pt. ii.; authorities cited. See also Mill's Hist. of India, ed. Wilson, vols. iv. and v.; Papers relating to the Carnatic, presented to the House of Commons in 1803; Annual Registers and Parl. Hbassy, under dates; Colonel Wilks's Hist. Sketches of South of India.]


Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 34. pgs. 404-406.

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